Robert Covolo | It takes on special significance throughout the arc of Scripture.
Before becoming a PhD candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary, I served for 12 years at a church in Long Beach, California. A number of my congregants worked in the fashion industry. From them I learned that programs on fashion—fashion design, merchandising, and a body of literature called fashion theory—were popping up all over.
When I looked for a Christian response to the fashion industry, I didn’t find anything. There are books on Christianity and film, Christianity and literature, Christianity and psychology, but I couldn’t find anything on Christianity and fashion.
Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ ” Like Kuyper, I want to understand every aspect of human life in relationship to Christ. This set me on a quest to understand the fashion industry and emerging fashion studies.
The Bible doesn’t directly address fashion, which today refers to the rapid interplay of clothing in consumer societies. But the Bible has a surprising amount to say about clothing. Right from the beginning, after the Fall, Adam and Eve became aware of being “undressed.” Then God provides for them in their nakedness. Theologians call this a protoevangelium—literally a “first gospel.” The gift of clothing reveals a God who meets us in our shameful, sinful condition and covers us through a sacrificial death.
Clothing takes on special significance in the story of Joseph; in the way the prophets Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah delivered their message; and at the Transfiguration, where Jesus appeared in clothing that “became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). Luke 12:27–28 tells us God dresses the flowers of the field, more splendorous than Solomon in his fine dress. If that is how God clothes the fields, how much more does he care about clothing us?
The Bible also addresses modesty, and therefore, we must seriously consider it. But modesty is not the locus of biblical teaching on clothing. After all, Esther won a beauty contest to rescue her people. Conversely, any of us can wear modest clothing and still lack the generosity that Paul puts forward as the end game of modesty (1 Tim. 2). So here’s a test to see if we are practicing biblical modesty: Do we reserve resources to bless those less fortunate? Or do we spend all of our resources on ourselves?
Further, as we are obligated to care for others, we might spend more money on high-quality clothes, as cheap clothing notoriously relies on sweatshops and child labor. And consider the elaborate nature of the priestly clothing detailed in Exodus 28; the celebrated gold-laced bridal gown in Psalm 45:13–14; and the Proverbs 31 woman, who dresses her household in scarlet. From these and other texts, we learn that the Christian story embraces the festive, fine, and elaborate dress associated with fashion.
To truly engage fashion as Christians, we need to move beyond explicit verses about dress and examine the underlying values that are reinforced by fashion. Some of these values are good. It is no accident that modern fashion has arisen alongside suffrage and other aspects of democracy. The two cities known best for fashion—New York and Paris—are major cities in countries that have had powerful democratic revolutions. If we all get to choose what to wear, we are already practicing a form of voting for the public decorum.
But not all values put forth by fashion are reconcilable with Christianity. One of the parasites that feeds and fuels fashion is late-modern expressionism. I’m talking here not about the value of expressing yourself, but about making self-expression into an entire way of life. As Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor pointed out, self-expression has become the highest good for many people, pursued with a religious zeal. This new form of late-modern Romanticism teaches us that to not “follow your heart” is to diminish our humanity.
Clearly such expressionism is at odds with the Christian faith. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, not pursue ourselves (Matt. 16:24). Self-denial, not self-expression, is at the heart of Christianity. Again, here is an opportunity for Christians to look beyond concerns about scanty dress to consider how we might make sacrifices in our choices for the sake of others.
Beyond this, Thomas Aquinas provides one more model for engaging clothing. He believed we have a moral obligation to compose our outward manners—including our dress—in light of the person we are addressing, the company we are with, the business we are pursuing, and the place we are in. He claimed that a truly virtuous life includes the art of savoir faire—“a sense of occasion discerning differences of situation”—and that this should inform the clothing we wear. May we rise to the occasion.
Robert Covolo is an ordained pastor and a dual PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary and VU University–Amsterdam. His dissertation (under William Dyrness) is on fashion theory and theology.